Whiteness, Passivity, and Death: the Aftermath of Charlottesville

Since Heather Heyer’s death at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on August 12, her face has appeared on my Facebook news feed dozens of times every day.  It is always the same photograph: a softly-lit selfie, in which Heyer is smiling, her makeup and hair done: the very picture of beauty and innocence.  This photograph is an unsettling contrast to those which circulate of those victims of violence which are people of color: when Trayvon Martin was killed, the picture circulated was a black and white image of Trayvon in a hoodie, unsmiling; this image served to amplify the stereotype-based, victim-blaming narrative which is perpetuated by the media about victims of color.  

Heather Heyer was killed by the same oppressive, white supremacist forces which murdered Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and countless other black and brown human beings.  Yet the aftermath of her death, in most contexts, has been wildly different.  

Put frankly, people care more when the victim is white.  When the victim is white, everyone grieves together.  It is understood that what has taken place is unjust and despicable.  There are no articles published framing the victim as a “thug” or a criminal who somehow deserved their fate.  Haverford students are seemingly united in their anger and frustration, which has not always been the case.

James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car which ploughed into the crowd of protesters and killed Heather Heyer, was promptly charged with second-degree murder and other charges.  There is no plausible explanation besides blatant systemic racism for why he would be charged but Officer Jeronimo Yanez, Philando Castile’s murderer, would be acquitted, or for why the J20 defendants are each facing up to a decade in prison.  

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, is a living example of the way in which blind loyalty between white people is dangerous to people of color and members of other marginalized groups.  

Bro publicly thanked President Trump for his statements about the events, saying, “Thank you, President Trump, for those words of comfort and for denouncing those who promote violence and hatred” (NBC News).

In this country, white victims who die at the hands of racism get one treatment, while black and brown victims get another.  Through his words, actions, and inaction, Trump constantly validates and perpetuates this bifurcation of outcomes, as well as the system which causes these innocent people to die.  

Susan Bro had an opportunity to call attention to and criticize the systemic reasons for her daughter’s death, and those who uphold those systems, including President Trump.  In thanking Trump for his tweets, Bro condoned his reaction to the events in Charlottesville, thereby passively condoning his oppressive leadership.  

I say this not to disrespect Susan Bro or the grief she is experiencing, but to point out that we as a student body can learn a lot from Charlottesville and its aftermath. We can learn that passivity, especially white passivity, is dangerous. Imagine the impact it might have had if Bro had chosen to vocally reject Trump’s “words of comfort”, or if she had publicly recognized that the president of the United States is an ally of the white supremacists her daughter died protesting.  

While we as college students might not have a national platform, we each have a voice on this campus.  When we take those voices for granted and choose to be passive, we perpetuate the same vulgarity that was chanted by the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.  If your allyship is not active, you are not an ally.

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